Should You Take the GMAT in a Test-Optional World?

In response to the pandemic, many business schools waived standardized tests but experts say taking one can still give MBA applicants an edge

For decades, achieving a high score on a standardized test such as the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), or the GRE, was essential to your chances of admission to one of the world’s highest ranking business schools. However, in recent years many leading academic institutions have waived admissions tests as an entry requirement to their MBA programs, meaning prospective students can apply without swotting for hours to improve their score.

Yet many admissions consultants, who coach MBA applicants to secure admission to the most selective institutions, say that candidates should take the tests anyway, even if they don’t end up submitting their score to a business school.

MBA admissions directors are also dispensing the same advice to would-be students. “If possible, we encourage candidates to do the test prep and take the test as a self-assessment of strengths and opportunity areas,” says Rebekah Lewin, senior assistant dean for admissions and programs at University of Rochester’s Simon Business School.

Suppose a student struggles in either the math or the verbal section of the GMAT, she says. “In that case, that might be an area where they can do pre-work before business school that will ultimately help their learning curve when they enroll — particularly in the core classes that span many different business areas.”

Lewin adds that submitting a test score similar to the average of enrolling students can be advantageous for a candidate who does not have a quantitative background and does not have many other data points to demonstrate their mathematical abilities.

Stacy Blackman, a leading admissions consultant, agrees. “If you’re aiming for top MBA programs and have access to the test, I recommend taking the test and submitting the score,” she says. “A test score is the most objective measure of one’s ability to handle the coursework of a top business school.”

Furthermore, a strong test score shows the candidate is committed to the academic exercise of test prep through hard work and perseverance. “Such attributes are proxies for success within and outside the classroom of a graduate program,” Blackman says.

Many schools waiving GMAT requirements

In recent years, many MBA programs, Rochester: Simon included, have started waiving their testing requirement for MBA admissions, if a candidate can demonstrate academic capabilities in different ways, such as through undergraduate coursework.

At the start of the pandemic, access to testing became extremely limited, and business schools quickly pivoted to identify other ways to assess academic readiness beyond test scores.

Stacey Koprince, content and curriculum lead at Manhattan Prep, says: “What business schools may tell you is that going test optional is a way for them to demonstrate they have the best interests of prospective students in mind by simplifying a rigorous process during a stressful time. It gives applicants one less time-consuming piece of the application to focus on.”

It’s also the case that removing the standardized test requirement is boosting application numbers as it brings in students who find the MBA appealing, but don’t particularly want to spend months studying for a pre-test, Koprince adds. “Many potential students see the exams as a barrier, rather than an opportunity. Going test optional removes that barrier and has sent applicant volume soaring.”

That said, it’s important for students to realize that even for test-optional schools, submitting a competitive GMAT or another standardized testing score like the GRE could still “give them an edge in the admissions process”, says Koprince. “In fact, as part of our 2021 business school admissions officers survey, nearly 90 percent of test optional business schools told us that a competitive score can still help a prospective student get in.”

Important: many schools base MBA scholarships on GMAT or GRE scores

It’s also worth noting that many schools base scholarship decisions on GMAT or GRE scores.

About a third of the business schools who responded to Manhattan’s survey said the lack of test scores has made it harder for them to evaluate prospective students, leading them to compensate with other factors such as the interview and transcripts. Other schools now look more carefully at an applicant’s relevant professional experience.

The test waiver process at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business allows MBA applicants to demonstrate strong alternative evidence that they can thrive in the program. “There is no perceived negative implications if an applicant applies for a test waiver,” says senior assistant dean of admissions, Dawna Clarke.

There are many ways to supply this evidence, notably a demonstrated record of academic and professional accomplishment. “If you have a master’s or advanced degree in an analytical subject or a strong undergraduate record with demanding coursework, for instance, that may show as much as a quantitative score,” says Clarke. “We also take certifications such as the CPA, CFA and HBS Online into consideration.”

Ultimately, experts say test scores are only one component of the application process, and they are not going to be the deciding factor for who is admitted or rejected. However, for some applicants who don’t have alternative academic or quant evidence, a test score can be very helpful in demonstrating their academic aptitude.

“Any test is better than no test for applicants focused on the top MBA programs with competitive acceptance rates,” says Blackman. “There are other tests to consider, such as the Executive Assessment, if the GMAT isn’t ideal.”

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